Lancaster legends, lunatic chairs and witches

Lancaster castle John O Gaunt gateway

In our relentless quest to travel further and further into the world, we often forget places which are relatively nearest to us.  Lancaster, for example is  only an hour or so drive away from us, yet until recently we had never been there.  Lancaster is the county town of Lancashire, famous for the Pendle Witch trials of 1612 where  9 women and two men were tried at Lancaster Assizes, 10 were found guilty and were hung.

Lancaster Museum

The town itself is a very busy place, the river Lune runs through it, colourful barges and delightful pubs and restaurants abound.  The Museum has a marvellous collection that ranges from early civilisation up to the present day.   I really like the way the collections are displayed and grouped, going back through time.  There are lots of artifacts that have been found in Lancaster.  The most fascinating one, I thought, was a body that had been found under a car park  (I think) in the centre.  The coffin was hollowed out of a tree and the body wrapped up in a cloth shroud.  But all that remained of the body was the fingernails and toenails!  Of course you weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum, which was a shame because there were some wonderful artifacts.

Lancaster Prison

Lancaster castle is a big black imposing place – there’s nothing romantic about it  Having gone up to the entrance (John of Gaunt’s gateway) we were a bit disconcerted to find that this entrance was actually the doorway to a working prison and we were queueing up with relatives of the prisoners…..  Apparently this is a common mistake.

Having found the right entrance we were shown around by a the castle’s archivist Eric Wilkinson whose knowledge of the castle’s history and the informative and highly entertaining way he made the castles history come alive, made the hour-long tour go by only too quickly.   It was easy to forget that part of the castle is in fact a prison and that the Crown court still sees a lot of action, it’s  done so for over 200 years.  The walls in the court are covered in heraldic shields of all the counties of Lancashire and ornate carving provides an impressive backdrop to this historical room.

lunatic chair

I got to sit in a ‘Lunatic chair’.  It is a restraining chair that was used to confine ‘awkward’ prisoners.  the more they struggled, the more the leather straps self tightened.  Luckily for me, the chair was strapless when I sat in it 🙂

We were also incarcerated in a tiny dungeon, the door was locked and the light turned out.  To say it was creepy would be an understatement…..  of course yet again we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the prison (security risk).  


 But outside we took some of ‘Hanging Corner’.  This little place is where a lot of hangings took place.  Standing on the car park where the prisoners bodies were buried in quicklime, facing the church on a sunny day, a slight chill was felt. 

 Castle tour (lunatic chair and scolds bridle and inside pics of the castle here)

Castle John O Gaunt gateway here and prison sign here

About Lancaster here

11 thoughts on “Lancaster legends, lunatic chairs and witches

    1. It seems the norm now Kirsty. So many photo opportunities – wasted grrrr! Thats why the V and A in London was so amazing, we took loads of pics!

  1. I am reading “Wolf Hall” right now so, of course, I find this post very interesting. Creepy, yes, but somehow these goings on were part of their culture. It has been difficult for me to enter the story because of the differences and I feel a very ancient sense of life when I see these things you have posted. I have had to Google many of the things referred to in the book. I, too, would have liked to visit,in person, like you. Thank-you for sharing your trip with us, Lynda!

  2. Coincidently, I have also got Wolf Hall Leslie, but I havn’t got around to reading it yet, I’m still reading Ackroyds ‘Hawksmoor’ (the architect), plus I have foolishly bought a book in Lancaster by Kate Mullholland called ‘The Icarus Legacy’ about Pendle witches…and already started reading this:)
    No fairytale castle this – just real life. Debters, murderers, children, regardless of sex all mixed together.

    1. Yes. That time period is so hard for me to understand. I envision a very dark world. I guess there is going to be a sequel to “Wolf Hall” so I am making myself read it and trying to study about it on the side. Maybe the book “The Icarus Legacy” would help with that also?

      1. Maybe, Leslie though Henry is well dead by then, you still get the feel of those dark times, filled with superstitions and ‘God fearing’ people, Priests holes and secrecy. There is a novel that came out before this one, which I haven’t read called ‘Cry of Innocence’. That will give you a real flavour of the Pendle Witches Leslie (or even ‘Mist over Pendle’ by Robert Neill – an excellent book!

  3. Great post Lynda, I love it when you get to travel. Not being able to take pictures just makes the words more important. Can you take pictures in the pubs? After that prison, I’m sure you and hubby could probably use a pint…or two! You are right about people not taking advantage of the interesting sites right in their own backyard.

  4. Oh yes – you can take pics in pubs Al :)……You’ve guessed whats coming next haven’t you 🙂 That Castle/prison though was one of the best castle experiences I ever had too, (apart from Hampton Court Palace which took me hours to get round because I went in every room, listening to the recordings). Usually my husband runs straight to the top and back down when I’m still in the gatehouse:)

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